The last major exhibition devoted to William Kurelek, the troubled and troubling Prairie-born painter who died in 1977, was organized by the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in 1982 and toured to 14 galleries across Canada.
I saw it at the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon halfway through that tour, and judged him to be a minor folk painter concentrating on religious subjects, a kind of naive, flatland Bruegel. Now another retrospective, organized by three Canadian public art galleries (the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria) has fundamentally changed my mind about his achievement.
Kurelek emerges from The Messenger, the title assigned to this collection of 85 paintings and works on paper (smartly chosen by Andrew Kear, Tobi Bruce and Mary Jo Hughes, curators from the participating institutions), as an artist of intense commitment and dedicated skill.
He remains among the most bizarre painters this country has produced and his subjects remain inside an essentially religious framework. But his work reads quite differently today than it did in the sixties, when he seemed a lone and curious figurative artist in an art world dominated by abstract painting. The open-ended plurality of current art making, and a postmodern tolerance for aesthetic and personal eccentricity make Kurelek more contemporary now than when he was alive. In 2011, he seems like a Prairie Hieronymus Bosch, his naiveté replaced by a single-minded apocalyptic vision.
Kurelek underwent a radical shift in his view of himself as an artist after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1957. While living in England in the fifties he had produced a body of dark, depressing paintings that documented his attempted suicide, his painful childhood recollections of growing up on the Prairies, and the general psychological and emotional anguish he had experienced throughout his life.
These works are the record of being relentlessly pursued by memories of real and imagined demons. Prior to his conversion, he viewed himself as a romantic, a communist and an atheist, a three-part identity he abandoned in his re-invention as a proselytizer with a palette board and a message of impending and unavoidable Armageddon. He drifts away from Karl Marx, to making marks with a vengeance.
In This Is the Nemesis (1965), he conceives a spectacular end for the city of Hamilton through a nuclear explosion that leaves a pile of rubble and a congregation of tortured victims. (There is also a cloud on the dark horizon that indicates Toronto has suffered the same fate.)
In Harvest of Our Mere Humanism Years (1972), he invents a brightly lit Boschian nightmare in which a giant, hollowed-out grasshopper drinks through a straw a fluid made from compressed human knowledge. The insect sits in a denuded urban space that includes Toronto's twinned city hall, and a series of ruptures in the Earth's surface that swallow up any human automatons unfortunate enough to inhabit this desolate landscape.
It is an absolutely bizarre vision, a sort of Orwellian visual theatre a decade in advance of 1984. Literature fed Kurelek's sensibility as much as visual art but both art forms led to an unprecedented and identical apocalypse.
He also addressed what he regarded as moral issues, including sexuality and abortion. His virulent opposition to the latter appears in only one small, but bloody, passage in the show, in The Dream of Mayor Crombie in the Glen Stewart Ravine (1974). The curators have clearly underplayed this particular card for fear of it taking over the entire table. They are less circumspect about Kurelek's view of the immorality of contemporary society.
In his Prairie paintings, Kurelek "bridged the pastoral and the prophetic," to quote from the excellent bilingual book that accompanies the exhibition. He often reduced the landscape to its most minimal components (he takes full advantage of the contrast between a golden planted field and the dark loam of a summer-fallowed one) but then inserts a weighty image. Dinnertime on the Prairies (1963) is characteristic. In a split field he hangs a bloodied Christ on a cross made from fence posts, his body wrapped in barbed wire that would normally be used for fencing in animals. The gruesome economy of the painting is startling.
The Messenger is an important, admirable and difficult exhibition. No viewer, even those who might share the artist's millennial obsessions, will like these paintings. But in the uncompromising way they render an alienating and prescient world, they represent a stunning accomplishment. It provides no pleasure to say, 34 years after his death, that William Kurelek is a painter for our time.
William Kurelek: The Messenger is on show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery till Dec. 31; at the Art Gallery of Hamilton Jan. 28 to April 29; and at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, May 25 to Sept. 3, 2012.
Special to The Globe and Mail